The Four Movies that Impacted My Writing and Why
Once upon a time, I was a movie buff. Now, I pretty much avoid most of what Hollywood has to offer, but in that land far, far away were four movies that literally changed my writing, and I’d like to share those with you and tell you the impact they made on my technique.
First, I do believe that there are seven essential elements to writing fiction. Each element is necessary to write a novel worth reading. The way an author uses those elements is his developmental style. In the way that a great script comes across the screen for the audience, so should a story come alive in the readers’ imaginations. These four movies helped me to create that move in the minds of my reader.
A warning, though, before we start. Two of these movies might be considered PG; two of them are definitely R-rated due to content and language, especially the use of God’s name in vain as was the surprise I received when I studied one of the most iconic and beloved stories of our time. I tell you this because I want you to make an informed decision before you decide to watch. Oh, and there could be a few spoilers below.
The Mummy (with Brendan Frasier)- PG
Clarification of the classic is important here. I’m a suspense writer, but more and more when I watch anything on television, let alone a movie, I have to turn the channel. The explicit violence is not something I feel comes with suspense. That’s a horror flick. I don’t do scary.
Yet, The Mummy is a horror flick. I believe the charm I saw in the movie the first time I watched it was a result of director, Stephen Sommers’, use of old Hollywood techniques that allowed me to experience the “horror” without turning away. While I do not believe there ever was a time when Hollywood was sensitive to what it pushed upon an unsuspecting public, there was a point when they were not allowed to get away with it. Sommers took us back in time to when a hero was a hero; a heroine was a competent damsel in distress; the sidekicks for both the antagonist and the protagonists add dimension to the story, and tension came in what was about to happen and not in the grossness of showing it.
Sommers heightened tension for the viewer by placing into our imaginations what was about to happen to a hapless character who ran across The Mummy. For example, we know when the professor loses his glasses in the tombs that the mummy is on his way. Something inside of us wants to scream, “Get away. Get away.” Then the mummy appears, and the professor can’t see him. Fear rings in his voice as he explains to the stranger that he’s lost his glasses. We see the grotesque mummy standing over him. My senses are on alert. I know the fellow is about to meet his demise. Does Sommers show the monster crushing the life out of the man, his eyes bulging out, his neck broken? No. This wise director cuts to shadow, and on the wall we see the man shrink up as the mummy drains the life from him.
Another technique utilized by the director is that of speeding up the action yet slowing it down with conflict. While Evie is tied to a slab, awaiting her sacrifice and Rick is fighting the mummy, who is getting the best of him with his conjured mummy priests and his own strength, Rick’s sidekick is running around trying to read an ancient spell. Jonathan isn’t a student like his sister, Evie, and he struggles with the translation, spouting out to Evie that the symbol looks like a bird. He has to describe the bird, and Rick is yelling at him to hurry up with the translation. That’s classic suspense. Still we’re waiting for the results of the scene, and the audience is caught up in split second action while all the time the suspense is being slowed with the conflict of Jonathan’s ignorance.
Everything about The Mummy is either a “wait for it” or a “my heart is racing,” moment. The viewer does not have to see the brutal violence. The suspense results in artfully leaving the audience to their own imaginations until the dreaded action occurs–in shadow or off camera–or at a fast clip with conflict hurdles.
This technique happens to be about pacing. The next movie includes pacing as well as an important lesson in layering.
Back to the Future- R (for language)
Marty McFly takes the audience on the adventure of a lifetime. I’d watched the movie several times before the masterful script caught my attention. In Back to the Future the layering and back story begin from the opening credits in which the only words spoken come from a television newscaster and Marty’s exclamation after he strums the guitar on Doc Brown’s amp-on-steroids. In the opening credits alone, the reader learns Doc Brown’s history and why he lives in a garage. The viewer understands that Doc is obsessed by time and that he has stolen some plutonium. We know he has a dog named Einstein, and we understand that he and Marty are very good friends. The fun of this movie, for me as a writer, comes in ferreting out just how much the screenwriter had to layer into the story for it to make sense. I only caught one problem, and I won’t tell you what it is. You’ll have to find it for yourself.
As the movie continues, though, we see the layering of plot devices from Marty’s cassette player to the movie camera he takes to the past. We meet his parents in the present so that when Marty goes back to the past, we understand that his parents aren’t exactly who they present themselves to be in the present, and we learn why they are like they are. In this movie, back story is unique because it’s everything, and the way it is layered in to each scene, building the conflict is amazing. Layering is also important because what Marty does in the past is largely because of what he’s brought with him from the future, whether it is information or plot devices.
L.A. Confidential-R (for content and language)
With regard to violence, this movie is the exact opposite of The Mummy, but the layering is dynamic, especially for writers like me who love character and plot and developing separate plots that converge into one story at the end.
This story has three concurrent plots. One officer is attempting to rise in the ranks, and his desires make him a target from others on the force. He’s not too shy about his aspirations, and when a group of people in a 1950’s dinner are shot up and killed, including a police officer, our man gets his chance to investigate a crime. That crime leads us to hero number two.
He’s a bruiser of a cop. He collects extortion payments from citizens by order of his chief, but this hero isn’t all bad. He’s multi-dimensional. He doesn’t like hero number one because that hero is everything he isn’t and everything he doesn’t want to be. He takes orders. He does what he’s told. He’s not seeking advancement. Then into his world walks a woman who appears to have been beaten. Our hero number two kicks into action. He seeks her out, trying to find out if she’s okay. He finds out that she’s an escort, and the cuts and bruises on her face were due to surgery to make her look like a famous actress. His infatuation with the escort collides with hero number one’s aspirations of solving a crime.
Hero number three is getting his money in another way. He sells Hollywood gossip to the local gossip rag, and he makes money. He also stages events and sets up stars for trouble so that the columnist can get his story. His actions tumble him into the escort service world when he sets up a rising star and finds him dead. That’s when his world collides with the worlds of hero number one and number two.
These stories evolve with each scene, cutting from one lead to the next until they get closer and closer and closer, and finally, we see how it all fits together. If you want to know how to move one or two or even three plots along, I recommend this movie.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof-PG
I saved my favorite for last. When I first saw the expertise of the screenwriter in bringing a classic to life, I thought it was only about the conflict. The story of Brick and Maggie Pollitt, Big Daddy, Big Momma, Goober and May is all about conflict that rises as the story goes forward and climaxes pretty much in the first part of the second act when all of the mystery concerning Brick and Maggie’s back story explodes and leaves the characters to put out many fires and also causes another explosion or two.
Is this a thriller? No. It’s the story of an ex-football player, ex-sportscaster, ex-football team owner whose marriage is falling apart. From scene one, we see not only the conflict but the dynamics of character.
This movie teaches every element of writing: plot, pacing (back story and scene development), conflict, character, point of view (the deeper the better), dialogue, and showing (not telling). It’s a rich movie for an author to watch and to glean. And when you get to the end of it, you’ll find out that everything that happened in the story was about back story–deep, rich back story. However, you’ll also note that the screenwriter never took one moment to throw the reader into the past with a flashback–my pet peeve. The story has deep, dark soil, and every bit of back story comes to life in front story, in words that are spoken and in words that are never said.
I’m sure there are more movies out there that utilize techniques that authors can learn. I’d love to hear any that have helped you develop your story.
Fay Lamb is an editor, writing coach, and author, whose emotionally charged stories remind the reader that God is always in the details. Fay has contracted three series. With the release of Everybody’s Broken, three of the four books in the Amazing Grace romantic suspense series, which also includes Stalking Willow and Better than Revenge, are currently available for purchase. Charisse and Libby the first two novels in her The Ties That Bind contemporary romance series have been released. Fay has also collaborated on two Christmas novella projects: The Christmas Three Treasure Hunt, and A Ruby Christmas, and the Write Integrity Press romance novella series, which includes A Dozen Apologies, The Love Boat Bachelor, and Unlikely Merger. Her adventurous spirit has taken her into the realm of non-fiction with The Art of Characterization: How to Use the Elements of Storytelling to Connect Readers to an Unforgettable Cast.
Future releases from Fay are: Frozen Notes, Book 4 of the Amazing Grace series and Hope and Delilah, Books 3 and 4 from The Ties that Bind series.
Fay loves to meet readers, and you can find her on her personal Facebook page, her Facebook Author page, and at The Tactical Editor on Facebook. She’s also active on Twitter. Then there are her blogs: On the Ledge, Inner Source, and the Tactical Editor. And, yes, there’s one more: Goodreads.